BAGAN (on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, a day-long boat ride from Mandalay) is one of the world's most awesome sights. Surpassed in Southeast Asia only by Angkor Wat, this ancient city covers an area of 42 square kilometers (26 square miles) and contains 3,317 temples, stupas and pagodas, along with 2,000 unidentifiable mounds and ruins. By some estimates, there were as many as 13,000 temples here during Bagan's peak in the 13th century— with earthquakes and the Irrawaddy River destroying 10,000 of them over the years. The shear scale of Bagan is what makes it so impressive: religious buildings are everywhere, and there are enough of them to go around so that no matter how many people are at Bagan it never seems swamped with tourists.
Bagan (pronounced pah-Gahn and also spelled Bagan) is the main tourist destination in Myanmar and the capital of the first Myanmar Empire. The magic of Bagan has inspired visitors to Myanmar for nearly 1000 years. Bagan is full of ancient architecture and ruins. Temples, pagodas, monuments, stone scripts, votive tablets, wall paintings, murals, stuccos carvings can be found in many places in Bagan. The Scottish anthropologist James George wrote in 1910: “Jerusalem, Rome, Kiev, Benares, none of them can boast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament.”

According to ICOMOS: "Bagan provides an exceptional testimony to the peak of the Bagan civilisation when it was the heart of the largest Buddhist empire of the medieval world, with economic and political functions supported by religious and royal exchanges; Bagan is an outstanding example of a rich ensemble of Buddhist architecture; Bagan demonstrates in an exceptional way the ‘Bagan Period’ between the 11th to the 13th centuries, and its primary focus of religious activity; Bagan is an exceptional and early testimony of the Buddhist practice of merit-making on an impressive scale, both as a powerful historical force and continuing practice." [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Bagan, at a bend of the Irrawaddy River in the dry zone of Upper Burma, is, with its almost 3000 recorded brick monuments, the world’s largest archaeological site related to Buddhism. During its heyday, in the 11th to 13th centuries, it was a big, international metropolis and a center of political and religious life. The murals of the temples suggest that monasteries and palaces made of teak as well as more modest bamboo houses, such as those that can still be seen in remote villages, were scattered among brick-constructed religious monuments. The founders of the greatness of Bagan were Burmese who are believed to have emigrated from South China to the Irrawaddy river area at some time in the 9th and the 10th centuries. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Bagan's largest temples rival the cathedrals of Europe in size and age, but rather than being scattered across a continent, they are concentrated in an area about the size of Santa Monica...Despite the new construction, Bagan remains awe-inspiring. Climb up on one of the larger monuments and the temples seem to stretch across the dusty plain as far as the eye can see. Some of the larger monuments soar as high as 20 stories; many are decorated with tiers of stone spires and ornate carvings. Some of the largest temples house giant statues of Buddha covered in gold leaf, and some still have original frescoes depicting the life of Buddha.Scattered among the large monuments are temples as small as a one-room hut, often with a statue of Buddha inside, and squat, circular pagodas with a conical stupa on top and no entryway. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

Bagan: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Bagan was finally designated a a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019. Why did it take so long? It's 1996 nomination was rejected by UNESCO, in part due to the prevalence of inauthentic restorations. According to UNESCO: According to UNESCO: Bagan is a sacred landscape which features an exceptional array of Buddhist art and architecture, demonstrates centuries of the cultural tradition of the Theravada Buddhist practice of merit making (Kammatic Buddhism), and provides dramatic evidence of the Bagan Period (Bagan Period 11th – 13th centuries), when redistributional Buddhism became a mechanism of political control, with the king effectively acting as the chief donor. During this period, the Bagan civilisation gained control of the river transport, extending its influence over a large area. The traditions of merit making resulted in a rapid increase in temple construction, peaking in the 13th century." [Source: UNESCO]

”The serial property of eight components is located on a bend in the Ayeyarwady River, in the central dry zone of Myanmar. Seven of the components are located on one side of the River, and one (component 8) is located on the opposite side. Intangible attributes of the property are reflected in Buddhist worship and merit-making activities, traditional cultural practices and farming. The serial property of eight components consists of 3,595 recorded monuments – including stupas, temples and other structures for Buddhist spiritual practice, extensive archaeological resources, and many inscriptions, murals and sculptures. Bagan is a complex, layered cultural landscape which also incorporates living communities and contemporary urban areas.”

Bagan is important because: 1) It “is an exceptional and continuing testimony to the Buddhist cultural tradition of merit making, and to the peak of Bagan civilisation in the 11th-13th centuries when it was the capital of a regional empire. 2) Bagan contains an extraordinary ensemble of Buddhist monumental architecture, reflecting the strength of religious devotion of an early major Buddhist empire. Within the context of the rich expressions and traditions of Buddhist architecture and art found throughout Asia, Bagan is distinctive and outstanding. 3) Bagan is an exceptional example of the living Buddhist beliefs and traditions of merit making, expressed through the remarkable number of surviving stupas, temples and monasteries, supported by continuing religious traditions and activities. While the evidence of practices of merit-making are common in many Buddhist sites and areas, the influences established in the Bagan period, and the scale and diversity of expressions, and continuing traditions make Bagan exceptional.”

Bagan Site

According to ICOMOS The serial property of eight components is located on a bend in the Ayeyarwady River in the central dry zone of Myanmar. Seven of the components are located on one side of the River, and one (component 8) is located on the opposite side. There is a dense cluster of monuments for approximately 15 kilometers along the River, reaching approximately 5 kilometers inland at its centre. Altogether, there are 3,595 surviving monuments within Bagan. The property incorporates seven villages or parts of villages, and parts of two towns. For the most part, these have been excluded from the nominated components, but occur within the buffer zone.” The area of the eight components os the site total 4,987.88 hectares (49.9 square kilometers) with a single buffer zone of 17,821.97 hectares (178.2 square kilometers). [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

The serial property is a vast, complex and layered landscape of tangible elements of different historical periods, styles/designs and scales. These include numerous stupas and temples for Buddhist spiritual practice, monasteries, halls and corner markers/stupas; pilgrimage sites, fortifications, inscriptions, murals, cloth paintings and sculptures. There are extensive associated archaeological resources, including Palaeolithic sites, and a pre-Bagan palace and reservoir. These elements are set within a landscape shaped by the river, lakes, caves, hills and farmlands. Intangible dimensions of the nominated property are reflected in Buddhist worship and merit-making activities, traditional cultural practices and farming. Numerous objects of movable heritage associated with Bagan’s history and spiritual functions are cared for by the Bagan Archaeological Museum (located within the nominated property).

According to ICOMOS: Bagan is a complex, layered cultural landscape which also incorporates living communities and contemporary urban areas. ICOMOS considered that the rationale for the selection of components 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 was justified in relation to the proposed Outstanding Universal Value, and engaged in further dialogue with the State Party concerning the inclusion and boundaries of components 5, 6 and 7.

Component 5 raised questions because it does not contain attributes related to the justification of Outstanding Universal Value provided by the State Party. This component comprises a remnant reservoir, part of the ancient hydraulic system of Bagan, with little physical evidence other than some obscured stone walling. A stele with a significant inscription has been removed from this site and is now in the Bagan Archaeological Museum. In discussion with the State Party, the importance of the water management system in the historical functioning of urban system of Bagan has been given greater prominence. ICOMOS notes that historical water management system elements are present within several components, and can be considered as attributes of the Outstanding Universal Value of Bagan. Further research and documentation of the historical water management system is recommended.

ICOMOS notes that components 6 and 7 are located within mixed urban contexts. While component 6 traverses a main road, includes a high proportion of monuments with substantial reconstruction and has an awkward physical and visual relationship with the modern town of New Bagan, the State Party has provided additional information to strengthen the rationale for its inclusion. There is one stele with a historically significant inscription and an important cluster of stupas, temples, monuments and unexcavated archaeological sites. In exchanges with ICOMOS, the State Party agreed to extend the boundary of this component to the northeast to include the foundations of a residential building used by monks. Component 7 also contains an area of largely reconstructed brick stupas near the southern edge of New Bagan. To improve the integrity of this component, the State Party has agreed to a suggestion by ICOMOS to extend its boundary at its southeastern corner, effectively joining it with component 1.

Establishment of Bagan

Bagan's history has been carefully pieced together by a Burmese archeologist and monk named U Bokay, who has translated stone inscriptions, copper tablets and palm leaf manuscripts from the Mon, Pyu, Sanskrit and Pali languages into Burmese and English. See History

Established on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan was a great capital and wealthy trading port while Europe was in the Dark Ages. It was already a sizeable metropolis in the 9th century, when it was inhabited by Burman tribes who had migrated to the area in preceding centuries from China and Tibet. In A.D. 1057 King Anawrahta defeated the Mon Kingdom to the south, creating an empire that was nearly the shape and size of present-day Myanmar.

Anawrahta arrived at Bagan with 32 white elephants, carrying loads of Mon treasures and 30,000 Mon prisoner-artisans, which included, according to one inscription, "such men as were skilled in carving, and painting; masons, moulders of plaster and flower-patterns; blacksmiths, silversmiths, braziers, founders of gongs and cymbals, filigree flower-workers; doctors and trainers of elephants and horses; makers of shields...cannon muskets, and bows, men skilled in frying, poaching, baking...hairdressers, and men cunning in perfumes, odors, flowers and the juices of flowers."

Not long after defeating the Mon and unifying Burma’s ethnic groups in the 11th century, King Anawrahta converted to Theravada Buddhist and embarked on a merit-earning, temple-building frenzy that was carried on by his son and their successors. Most of the temples that stand in Bagan today were built in the 12th century at a rate of one or two a month, along with libraries, monasteries and housing for pilgrims. When Burmese civilization was at its zenith the great Bagan area was home to a perhaps a half million people, including pagoda slaves, who maintained the temples and their artwork.

History of Bagan

According to ICOMOS: The historical period of greatest relevance in this nomination is the Bagan period (11th – 13th centuries) of the region’s history. Prior to this period, archaeological evidence demonstrates the human history of Bagan through its Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods, and the Pyu period (first millennium CE), which is represented on the World Heritage List through the inscription of Myanmar’s Pyu Ancient Cities, located further downstream on the Ayeyarwady River. The Pyu period aligns with the introduction of Buddhism to southeast Asia; but the history of Bagan during this earlier period is the subject of needed further research. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

The Bagan period marks changes from the 11th century, when redistributional Buddhism became a mechanism of political control, with the king effectively acting as the chief donor. Bagan’s history is known from a range of sources, including modern histories, inscriptions, the evidence of monuments and objects, and oral traditions/legends.

Bagan gained control of the river transport, extending its influence over a large area. Because Bagan was a substantial city located in a relatively resource-poor region, it was dependent on a strong flow of goods through religious exchanges from its wider networks of influence. The traditions of merit making resulted in a rapid increase in temple construction, peaking in the 13th century...During this period, a system of laws and administration was codified, and there was a steady flow of tribute and goods to Bagan due to the integral relationship between Buddhism and the State. Diversity in architecture, painting and inscriptions is evident in this period. By the mid-14th century the locus of power moved upriver, nearer to current day Mandalay, under pressure from Mongol incursions. There was an expansion of Mon in the south and the rise of Mrauk-U on the west coast. Despite the decline in Bagan’s power, building constructions, monastic activity and pilgrimages continued until the British colonial period in the 19th century and into the modern era. Independence was achieved in 1948, and the country was under military rule between 1962 and 2010. Buddhism remains very strong in Myanmar, with continuing donation of money to support the monks, and the construction and maintenance of Buddhist structures.

Enriched through trade with China and India, Bagan became so wealthy the children of royalty played with gold and silver toys. The city was known as "the city four million pagodas" and described by Marco Polo as "a very great and noble city" with "the most beautiful towers in the world.” He probably didn't visit Bagan, he just relayed descriptions he had heard. Bagan reputedly once had 4,486,733 pagodas (although U Bokay says that a more likely figure is 5,000). Many were destroyed to build a defensive wall against of the horse-mounted Mongols army of Kublai Khan, which attacked in 1287 and defeated the Burmese in battle south of Bagan by outmaneuvering and "making pincushions" out of Bagan's "invincible" war elephants.

The Burmese king was forced to flee Bagan but the great city wasn't sacked, some say, because the Mongols couldn’t stand the heat and left within six months. Other says it was because Kublai Khan respected Buddhism and he ordered his troops not to destroy or loot the temples or their religious objects. This is one reason why there are so many temples in Bagan today.

Although Bagan, declined after the Mongol defeat, it continued to exist and temples and pagodas continued to be built. While large numbers of pilgrims continued to come temples were neglected and plundered by looters and treasure hunters, who broke open statues and dug under foundations in search of loot. This tradition was continued by Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries with their booty being hauled off to European museums.

Bagan's Monuments

Bagan's Monuments are made mostly from fired red bricks, often with little or no mortar, and to a lesser extent carved sandstone. Some are heaps of rubble. Some are crumbling but intact ruins. Others are working temples with monks and worshipers. Many remain in good condition because they are still regarded as sacred by pilgrims, who have continued to visit Bagan and have taken care of its religious buildings long after the city outlived its usefulness as a political or economic center. Bagan is filled with pagodas because each wealthy family had to outdo the other in their devotion.

There are three kinds of religious monuments at Bagan: stupas and temples (known collectively as pagodas) and monasteries. Stupas are generally solid, bell-shaped structures that contain holy relics such as hairs or teeth from Buddha or a sacred Buddhist scriptures. Some have objects related to famous monks. Temples are places or worship. They generally contain images of Buddha and are places where Buddhists practice devotional activities. Monasteries contains living quarters and meditation cells for monks.

The monasteries at Bagan typically are made up small chambers arranged in a square plan around a central hall. The early temples were constructed as artificial caves and influenced by Mon, Pyu and Brahman styles of architecture. Those built at the end of the 12th century have a more uniquely Bagan style, with large open interior spaces, terraced platforms, high-arched entrances, and large windows.

Bagan's most unique structures are its 17 five-sided buildings. They were once surrounded by thousands of wood buildings—palaces, schools, colleges, and monasteries—that historian Gordon H. Luce wrote "must have lightened and set off to great advantage the brick masses in between." These wooden structures rotted away over time. The main four places to visit are Shwezigon, Ananda, Dhammayangyi and Thabbyinnyu Pagodas.

Bagan's Construction and Art

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The ancient bricks and mortar were more durable than those used now. Even today, the old bricks are stronger than the new ones. Bang one of each kind together and it's the new one that breaks. The original bricks were made with clay and rice husks and, according to legend, kneaded by elephants. The mortar was made of molasses, buffalo leather, cotton and fermented peanut oil, archeologists say. The old mortar was put on as thin as superglue; the modern cement is laid on thick. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

The chambers inside the temples were originally covered with plaster and decorated with frescoes, sculptures, colorful murals and glazed tiles. Some of the tempura-paint murals that remain depict Hindu myths; some chronicle the reigns of Burmese rulers; while others offer scenes of everyday life: musicians, archers, women leading children by the hand, birds, trees. Most recount the lives of Buddha and bodhisattvas. Most are in less than perfect condition.

Bagan once contained millions of Buddha images and other works of art. Many of the sacred objects and precious metals that were buried with rulers underneath the stupas, unfortunately, have been taken by looters, who also beheaded and eviscerated statues looking for treasures. Still, according to Burmese, there are still so many ancient objects around that "you can not move a hand or a foot at Bagan without touching a sacred thing."

Bagan Archeology

Unlike Ankgor Wat and the Cham monuments in Vietnam, which were carefully studied and restored by the French, Bagan was surveyed and restored in a much more hazard manner by the British Archeological Survey of India, who enlisted the help of village headman to identify monuments. According to Russell L. Ciochon of Archeology magazine, "If the headman didn't know the name of a particular site, he would make a plausible holy-sounding name on the spot rather than disappoint his honored visitor, Some of these ad hoc names are still in use today."

Myanmar's isolation since independence in 1948 has prevented independent archeologists from working at Bagan. Most government funds allocated for work at Bagan has been earmarked for restoring monuments destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1975. Earthquakes over the centuries have destroyed more temples at Bagan than another cause. The buildings are restored by placing iron ties inside the bricks so that don't collapse during an earthquake.

The plus side of the 1975 earthquake is that it revealed many hidden artistic treasures. Inside cracked open Buddhist images, for example, were beautiful paintings and sculptures that had not been seen since they were sealed inside the images in the 11th and 12th centuries. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Archeology magazine, September/October 1992.

A third of Bagan and 30 of its temples have disappeared into the Irrawaddy River which erodes its bank eight times faster than the Mississippi River. In traditional funeral ceremonies it was customary to enter Bagan through the western gate which has vanished into the river. In funeral ceremonies held today, participants pretend the gate is still there and travel through the "gate" by boat.

Village Life and Ongoing Religious Worship at Bagan

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ “In Bagan, like the rest of Myanmar, the influence of the outside world is minimal and the archeological zone seems stuck in the past. Women carry goods in baskets on their heads, and oxen pull heavy loads, such as bamboo for building houses. Cars are few, and many people get around by bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The few decrepit buses are so overcrowded that many passengers sit on the roof. At many temples, residents volunteer to guide tourists, then plead with them to buy trinkets. Souvenir markets have been set up inside some of the biggest temples, where anxious vendors call out to customers, wave their merchandise and sound their gongs, resulting in a round of clanging and shouting every time a tour bus arrives.” [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

According to ICOMOS: Many built elements (including the monasteries and ancillary structures at major stupas and temples) remain in ongoing use and have been subject to changes in response to the operational needs of religious communities. Other changes include the introduction of modern lighting of statues, and installations of close circuit monitors and fire detection systems to assist with security or protect the fabric. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

Some traditional uses and functions have continued over centuries, including agricultural production, domestic life, religious practices, and merit-making. The monasteries, temples and major stupas are cared for by communities of monks and nuns, whose numbers remain strong, supported by local community members serving as temple trustees. The predominant form of intangible heritage at the property is the continuing Buddhist traditions reflected in the sangha and their religious activities, everyday worship by the majority of local people, and an ongoing commitment to merit-making through donations and good works.

Bagan's continued importance as a major religious centers does have its drawback though. Pilgrims at some temples have splashed whitewash over 750-year-old murals and painted crude images of flowers and animals in order to earn merit. Today, some of the dark tunnels in old temples are popular roosting places for bats, who stay out of the lit up chambers.

Earthquakes and Environmental Damage to Bagan

According to ICOMOS: Many earthquakes have affected Bagan throughout its history and have been recorded since the 12th century. The most recent severe earthquakes occurred in 1975 and 2016, and many structures today show the damages caused and/or the repairs that followed these disasters. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

The 2016 earthquake resulted in major damage to more than 400 pagodas (including damage to internal murals). In many cases, fracturing has occurred where hard mortar had been introduced in the 1990s. Since this most recent earthquake, a major conservation programme has commenced with assistance from UNESCO and the international community, rapid assessment and response using a structured triage and, in many cases, repair and stabilisation of earlier forms.

The majority of built structures within the components of the property are subject to repair and maintenance activity which has increased following the 2016 earthquake. However, the cracking which has occurred to the hard masonry additions from the 1990s has, in many cases, exacerbated water ingress. This is particularly problematic because of heavy monsoonal rains and the effect of internal moisture on softer masonry and fragile sculptures and murals inside the temples.

The property features brick monuments, many of which are a millennium old, the original fabric of which is at risk from ongoing environmental processes. The quantity of moisture delivered into the masonry by monsoonal downpours is therefore a factor. The property is also likely to be affected by climate change; particularly increases in the frequency or intensity of severe weather events, or greater variation in relative humidity, which may affect masonry elements. Along the Ayeyarwady River, erosion presents a significant threat, particularly in the northern areas of component 1 and the river edge of component 2. In some places, the river bank has moved inland by significant distances, threatening the stability of monuments. The State Party has carried out significant stabilisation works, but in some places the situation remains precarious.

The 2016 earthquake has served to harness and focus considerable expertise and resources, including a small Advisory Team and a more extensive Technical Experts Team. These teams have supervised a coordinated triage process in which property-specific guidelines have been prepared for conservation works: ‘Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments Post-disaster Rehabilitation Procedures and Guidelines 2016’. At a practical level, the triage and prioritisation process has careful and logical regard to critical factors such as public safety, prevention of further damage, relative significance and a valuesbased decision-making. ICOMOS notes that there is a focus on ‘original’ fabric, but not always a consistent approach to what is considered ‘original’. As noted above, in the aftermath of the 2016 earthquake, the opportunity is being taken to remove and/or revise inappropriate interventions from the 1990s.

According to Additional Information received from the State Party, Seismic Hazard Map and Seismic Risk Assessment Map is being prepared for the BaganNyaung U Area with the involvement of various professional organisations for engineering, earthquakes and geoscience. This project commenced in mid-2018 and should be completed in the first half of 2019.

Bagan Conservation

Bagan was finally designated a a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019. Why did it take so long? It's 1996 nomination was rejected by UNESCO, in part due to the prevalence of inauthentic restorations. According to UNESCO: The authenticity of Bagan is demonstrated by the landscape of Buddhist monuments of diverse sizes, scales, materials, designs and antiquity; and the rich and continuing religious and cultural traditions. The major built elements within the property, particularly the very large temples and stupas, retain a high degree of authenticity in their form and design, both internally and externally. The decorative elements of many of the individual monuments survive in their original form. The authenticity has been impaired by inappropriate interventions from the 1970s and 1990s, and by the extensive damages that resulted from earthquakes. [Source: UNESCO]

“Legal protection of Bagan is provided by the newly amended Law for Protection and Preservation of Cultural Heritage Regions No. (20/2019), Protection and Preservation of Ancient Monuments Law 2015 (with updated bylaw 2016), and Protection and Preservation of Antique Objects Law 2015 (with updated bylaw 2016). These laws are administered by the Department of Archaeology and National Museum (DANM). Effective legal protection is dependent on the full implementation of the Protection and Preservation of Cultural Heritage Regions Law. The property is also protected through practices and commitment of the religious communities and local people.

““Heritage zoning plans have been established and integrated into regional plans to ensure coordination. A further protective zone of 100 km x 100 km around the property has been established to control development. All developments within the protected zones are currently subject to site-specific archaeological assessment and input from the Department of Archaeology and National Museum (DANM).

“The Bagan National Coordinating Committee (BAGANCOM) has been established by the national government as the decision-making body for Bagan, ensuring inter-agency coordination. The main factors affecting Bagan are past conservation interventions, tourism and development pressures, environmental pressures and natural disasters. The management system is based on the Integrated Management Framework. While some aspects of the management system have recently established, and others are not yet fully implemented, the approach is sound. Guidelines that have been developed to support the most pressing activities. In particular, risk reduction and disaster response have been significantly improved as part of the response to the 2016 earthquake. Further elaboration of the management system should be based on a landscape approach to the management of the serial property.

“Some key strategic and policy documents, including the Sustainable Tourism Strategy, Archaeological Risk Plan, Agriculture Sector Strategy and Heritage Impact Assessment System are yet to be completed and/or fully operationalised. The property contains a number of intrusive elements, such as hotels. Rigorous Heritage Impact Assessment and clear decision making processes about development are critically important to the future management of Bagan. A long-term Hotels Strategy that identifies zones where hotels can be developed in the future has been recommended.”

Restoration and Repair at Bagan

According to ICOMOS: Conservation works and repairs have also been recorded throughout Bagan’s history – from the 13th century to the present day. The State Party has outlined the long history of conservation and repair of the monuments of Bagan, emphasising the complexity of portraying the state of conservation simply across such a large and complex property. The major focus at present is the response to the damages that occurred as a result of the 2016 earthquake; however, the State Party considers that, in general, the property is in a reasonably intact condition due to the wellconstructed and robust character of the monuments and other structures. The major monuments are in the care of Department of Archaeology and National Museum or temple trustees and are regularly maintained. However, others show signs of their age and the environmental and human factors affecting their condition. Past interventions to a number of structures have introduced cement mortar, and this is being progressively removed. Guidelines are provided in the Integrated Management Framework. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

ICOMOS also notes that due to the vast number, scale and age of the physical features that comprise the nominated property (ie. the stupas, temples and monasteries), the state of conservation is varied. Considered as a totality, the Bagan landscape is largely intact, albeit with some individually intrusive elements. The condition of archaeological resources is also varied, although major sites have been conserved. Based on the information provided by the State Party and the observations of the ICOMOS technical evaluation mission, ICOMOS considers that the state of conservation is good/acceptable, noting that many of the factors that have negatively impacted on some elements in the past are being progressively addressed by the State Party.

The nominated property occurs in an earthquake prone area and there is substantial evidence of earthquake damage. Repairs made in the 1970s, together with work undertaken by the national government in the 1990s introduced new design elements and hard masonry components that have affected the visual character, design and physical integrity of the nominated property. Some of this work has been able to be rectified by the conservation programme initiated after the 2016 earthquake. Notwithstanding the impressive efforts made to address the impact of the 2016 earthquake, many built structures remain damaged and vulnerable.

Bagan poses obvious challenges for prioritising conservation works and deciding on the degree of intervention. The overarching approach is provided in the Integrated Management Framework and Conservation Guidelines. These have been prepared with the benefit of national and international advice, and represent a wellresolved approach to the conservation challenges at Bagan. The guidelines distinguish between active and inactive monuments and between original and rebuilt fabric. There is also recognition of the implications of structural damage and principles that apply to the introduction of new materials or structural elements, in contrast to stabilisation, replacement or repair using original or traditional fabric and techniques.

There is an acknowledgement that removal of past cement mortar repairs is needed. This work is a long-term initiative and the practical reality is that in many cases, previous hard masonry or cement mortar repairs cannot be effectively removed without causing additional damage to significant fabric. However, in many cases the 2016 earthquake has fractured or damaged late 20th century hard masonry interventions and, in accordance with the Conservation Guidelines, major monuments are being stabilised in their pre-intervention state. Completion of post-earthquake urgent repairs will continue for several years.

Community Involvement in Bagan Conservation

According to ICOMOS: This nomination traverses a large area, involving a number of townships, communities and ongoing cultural and religious practices. ICOMOS has observed that there is a high degree of community support for the World Heritage inscription of Bagan, although an ongoing and highly interactive consultation about the long-term implications for a wide range of affected stakeholders is needed. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

The components of the property have multiple owners, with different levels of knowledge and resources. The suite of guidance and regulatory documents (both existing and proposed) is appropriate, but more resources need to be directed towards better information about requirements, and greater practical support for private owners. Additional Information received from the State Party indicates intentions to develop a strategy for appropriate community livelihood and sustainable development, marketing of Bagan-made products, and promotion of livelihoods based on traditional skills. The State Party has also undertaken to ensure that local communities are not displaced due to economic, political or technical reasons.

ICOMOS has also observed that religious communities, senior monks and monasteries are informed about the nomination and support it, particularly because of the emphasis is placed on the continuation of traditional cultural practice and specific activities such as meritmaking. There is also an expectation that inscription will result in improved economic circumstances for local communities. Continuing religious activities are strongly supported through the property management systems and genuinely permeate all aspects of day-to-day management. Pilgrims are actively encouraged as are Buddhist practices generally. At this stage, no conflicts were observed between the needs of pilgrims and other visitors, but this could become an issue as tourism numbers increase.

Farming at Bagan

According to ICOMOS: Much of the nominated property and its buffer zone are used for agricultural purposes. Farmed fields and the way in which agricultural activities are managed help maintain the visual and functional setting for the pagodas, monasteries and other significant built elements. Buddhist practices remain prevalent and appear to co-exist with the current levels of tourist activity, although this aspect will require ongoing monitoring and strict implementation of development controls. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

While there are some privately owned lands within the property, the majority is public land, areas of which are made available to local farmers. These arrangements are long-standing. The Integrated Management Framework policies are binding on these farmers and they tightly 175 control land use, extent of agriculture, depth of excavation, manual rather than mechanical processes, and crop type (eg. sugarcane is prohibited). The proposed amendments to the national legislation will strengthen the statutory basis of these controls, although there do not appear to be any pressures to vary existing arrangements.

The ‘Bagan Agriculture Sector Strategy’ is to be collaboratively prepared between DANM and the Department of Agriculture. It appears that this is yet to be commenced, but the State Party has advised that it should be completed ready for consideration by BAGANCOM in 2019. The liaison between DANM and the Department of Agriculture appears to be effective.

Farming is allowed within five feet of monuments, but no closer, and no mechanical equipment is allowed. Only seasonal crops are permitted (peanuts, beans, sesame, etc). ICOMOS considers that this approach is currently working well. For the smaller pagodas, this form of agriculture provides a traditional, simple and appropriate visual setting. At the larger temples, agricultural activities only take place a considerable distance away, as the forecourts are occupied by stalls, parking areas and other activities associated with temple visitation.

Bagan Development

Bagan has been developed and restored in some strange ways, most of them not good. About a thousand pagodas have been rebuilt by the government, many in a slapdash manner with new pink bricks and concrete as mortar. Restored pagodas often look more like pagodas found in a miniature golf course than the real things. The local people find them just as ugly as foreign tourist and have nicknamed some of the pagodas after the generals who they say think will earn merit and gain magical powers from the project.

UNESCO worked at Bagan in the 1990s but left. The organization was not by the Myanmar government during their wave of restoration. In fact no independent or qualified conservationists have been consulted on the project. Foreign money is welcome—foreign tourist are encouraged to make donations—if they give enough they are given a tour of the pagoda they are helping to rebuild—but not foreign expertise. Buddhists give money to earn merit.

According to ICOMOS: The Bagan Airport is located close to the township of Nyaung U within the buffer zone for the nominated property. Currently, ICOMOS does not consider that the Airport is intrusive, although two phases of future works (runway extension and re-location of the terminal and aircraft parking areas) are proposed and should be subject to a Heritage Impact Assessment and the Bagan National Coordinating Committee (BAGANCOM) approval. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

The property is at risk from development pressures, particularly those related to tourism. There are some large-scale modern hotels within component 1 which are intrusive and inconsistent with the historical and visual setting of the Buddhist monuments. Hotel construction continues, both at new sites and through extensions to existing hotel facilities. There are also a number of smaller scale structures which intrude upon the setting of particular monuments. These include commercial premises and shops and infrastructure installations.

The period between 1975 and 2008 saw extensive levels of intervention, which has altered the form of some pagodas, and introduced inauthentic hypothetical reconstruction of elements such as finials. Although repair and changes to the pagodas is a traditional merit-making activity, the manner in which such interventions have varied from historical evidence has impacted the authenticity of the individual monuments and the ensemble as a whole. Following the 2016 earthquake, actions are being taken to remove such interventions, especially where the newly-introduced hard masonry has itself cracked or fallen, causing additional damage.

Government Development at Bagan

Beginning in the mid 1990s, the Myanmar government embarked on a major restoration of Bagan. In some cases small pagodas have been fixed up in three months at a cost of $1000 with pink tiles and bricks that look as if they were made at factory that makes patio tiles. To cut corners, interior walls have been whitwashed, in some cases covering up works of art. Art restoration work is often shoddy. One official bragged to the New York Times that the Myanmar government restored 840 priceless murals in less than two years and would have done it faster were they not slowed down by all the colors. In some temples the names of donors have been inscribed in red paint over 800-year-old murals. Some consider the damage that has been done on par with what the Taliban did in Afghanistan..

Villagers whose families have lived with archeological zone for decades have been moved to make way for a golf course and other additions. The Myanmar government has erected a 60-meter observation tower at Bagan. The government tourism office claims the tower is a conservation effort that helps reduce the wear and tear of people walking on the pagodas. Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, The regime has begun “a building program that is changing Bagan's skyline. On the eastern edge of the cultural heritage zone, the government recently built a 154-foot observation tower that resembles a grain silo and sits alongside a new resort complex and golf course. For $10 — two weeks' salary for a teacher here — visitors can take an elevator to the top, have a drink and watch the sun set over the temples. In Old Bagan, workers have built a massive archeological museum and have nearly finished a huge palace designed in 19th century Mandalay style — not 12th century Bagan style. Both grandiose structures seem out of place on the plain of temples. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

According to ICOMOS: In June 2018, the State Party provided a short list of developments planned within or near to the nominated property. In response to request for further information from ICOMOS the State Party provided more detail about 15 projects, some of which are already implemented, and others that are still in the planning stages. In addition to these, there are several hotel development projects which urgently require rigorous Heritage Impact Assessment. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

Bagan’s Facelift

Darren Schuettler of Reuters wrote in 2006: “Unfurling a black-and-white drawing of a 700-year-old temple, Aung Chai scans the intricate sketch as diggers expose an ancient wall caked in red mud. "We'll need many new bricks for this one," the 52-year-old foreman said on a roadside in Bagan, Myanmar's mystical ancient capital where the rebuilding of temple 2610 is underway. But among the dark, weathered relics are spruced up stupas and new reddish-pink temples which have dramatically, and inaccurately, changed Bagan's character, critics say. More than 1,800 monuments have been fixed or rebuilt since the junta ordered the "beautification" of Bagan 10 years ago and shows no sign of stopping despite an outcry from foreign experts. [Source: Darren Schuettler, Reuters, November 13, 2006]

"It has become a kind of Disneyland," said Pierre Pichard, a French expert on the site built between the 11th and 13th centuries by King Anawrahta and his successors. "Tourists are not stupid. They can see it was built two months ago and there is no ancient part of the building," he said, referring to the modern bricks and cement used in many rebuilding projects.

“Restorations are not new to Bagan, a victim of many floods, fires and earthquakes over the centuries. A severe 1975 quake destroyed or damaged scores of clay brick and mud buildings and stunning wall murals some say are Bagan's greatest treasure. The junta allowed UNESCO experts in to help, but it later ignored the U.N. culture agency's recommendations for World Heritage status, which would have required a conservation plan and unwanted international scrutiny.

“After UNESCO withdrew in the mid-1990s, the generals launched their own restoration drive and solicited donations from wealthy Burmese and merit-seeking Buddhists from across Asia in pursuit of their own temple for the next life. "They just wanted it to look beautiful," said Gustaaf Houtman, editor of UK-based magazine Anthropology Today, who believes it is part of a wider campaign to rewrite history. "Generals sponsored the renovation of a pagoda as a merit-making exercise, as a way of demonstrating to the whole of Burma, and to the world, that they were in control," he said.

“A study by Australian archaeologist Bob Hudson says 650 complete buildings have had major repairs — including new spires, roofs or corners — since 1996. Another 1,200 — anything from a section of wall to a mound of bricks — were rebuilt based on historical documents and wall paintings of other buildings with similar floor plans. The regime says it is preserving Bagan as a living Buddhist site for thousands of worshippers from home and abroad who flock to pray at the temples on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.

"Our government values and cherishes cultural heritage," Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan told Reuters. "To turn Bagan into a Disneyland is, of course, out of the question," he said, dismissing critics who see an all-out effort to lure tourist dollars. They point to the 18-hole golf course in the shadow of pagodas, a gaudy new museum and a 60-metre-high (197 feet) viewing tower derided by some outsiders as an eyesore.

“More worrying to archaeologists is the proliferation of cookie-cutter monuments emerging from mounds of rubble like 2610. Pichard said restorers failed to recognize that temples or stupas could share the same floor plan but their shape and size varied widely, giving Bagan its rich diversity. "Now this is lost to something that is very uniform and stereotype," said Pichard, who believes only the 400 wall murals could qualify for World Heritage status today. Aung Chai, who has rebuilt or restored 50 monuments, says too much fuss is being made about a pile of old bricks. The surviving chest-high wall of 2610 will be torn down and used for the foundation of a new mini-temple sponsored by a Burmese family, their names to adorn a headstone when it is finished. "They only want a temple for their future life," he said as his crew, who earn 1,200 kyat (about $1) a day and are trained on the job, readied bricks and cement nearby.

“Myanmar's Department of Archaeology has defended the restorations publicly. But some within the department opposed it privately and left to earn more money as tour guides, Pichard said. "They have no choice. When a minister tells you to restore a temple and to make it as beautiful as possible, either you do it or you resign," he said. Some see the controversy over Bagan as a clash of Western and Asian views on how best to preserve culture, laced with overtones of Myanmar's struggle with the West on its human rights record and detention of political prisoners.

"I think this whole question is in a political framework instead of a cultural framework. You have to ask who is setting the standards, the Asians or the West?," said Oliver E. Soe Thet, general manager of the Bagan Hotel. "The difference is that Bagan is a living culture," said Soe Thet, who added many of his guests are Buddhist pilgrims. Others say the argument should be about what is good archaeological practice. They point to neighboring Laos where its ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang, has balanced the needs of tourism and preservation with guidance from UNESCO.

“Some experts believe the U.N. agency, which has toned down its criticism of the Bagan restorations, is trying a softer approach to get the junta to accept its advice.But the regime has a long history of thumbing its nose at the international community and it may be too late. "The damage has been done," said Houtman. "Anyone who looks at it now will see something very different from what it was 20 years ago."”

From Ruins to Ruined

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The bricklayers are paid $1.35 a day to rebuild the ancient ruin: a small, 13th century temple reduced by time to little more than its foundation. But they have no training in repairing aged monuments, and their work has nothing to do with actually restoring one of the world's most important Buddhist sites. Instead, using modern red bricks and mortar, they are building a new temple on top of the old.They work from a single page of drawings supplied by the government. Three simple sketches provide the design for a generic brick structure and a fanciful archway. No one knows, or seems to care, what the original temple looked like. Nearby are two piles of 700-year-old bricks that were pulled from the ruin. The bricklayers use them to fill holes in the temple.[Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

“Known as Monument No. 751, the structure is one of hundreds of new temples that have popped up all over the ancient city of Bagan, which ranks with Cambodia's Angkor temple complex as one of Asia's most remarkable religious sites. Once the scene of an international rescue effort, Bagan is now in danger of becoming a temple theme park. The late Myanmar historian Than Tun called the restoration "blitzkrieg archeology." "They are carrying out reconstruction based on complete fantasy," said an American archeologist who asked not to be identified for fear of being banned from the country. "It completely obliterates any historical record of what was there."

Many of the temples were damaged by a major earthquake in 1975. The military government at the time accepted international assistance, and experts from around the world spent years restoring some of the most important temples. Major temples restored after the quake remain in good condition. But after a new clique of generals came to power in 1988, interest in upholding international standards for historic preservation vanished. The regime rejected offers of continued foreign assistance and eventually dropped its plan to seek Bagan's designation as a World Heritage site, leaving one of the world's premier archeological sites without U.N.-protected status.

The government decided instead that turning Bagan, also known as Bagan, into a tourist destination could bring much-needed foreign cash. The generals set about making the archeological zone more appealing to visitors, particularly tourists from neighboring countries such as China and Thailand that are not so critical of the military government. One of the regime's first steps was to uproot all 3,000 residents who lived within Old Bagan's historic walls and move them to New Bagan a few miles south. "We were very angry," said one man who was 15 when his family had to pick up and move its small wooden house. "The older people were very sad. We had been there many generations." Where the homes used to be, the government began building hotels and restaurants. Much of the work was done with forced labor, a form of exploitation for which the regime is notorious. As in every aspect of society here, decisions on historic preservation are made by generals with no special expertise or training. Government archeologists say privately they have no choice but to go along. "If we disagree," one said, "they will send us to prison."

Untrained workers began covering old walls with plaster, obliterating the original contour of the brick. Statues were removed and replaced with no attempt to make accurate copies. The damage has been greatest to the medium-sized temples, many of which were neglected after the earthquake and then damaged by subsequent restoration work, said French architect Pierre Pichard, one of the foremost experts on Bagan. "The monuments have lost a great part of their authenticity and individuality," said Pichard, who worked extensively at Bagan after the 1975 quake and wrote an eight-volume catalog of the monuments published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Their missing parts, especially their upper superstructures, have been rebuilt without evidence of their former shape."

Pichard said the regime's building spree in Bagan was reminiscent of the monuments built by Mussolini during his fascist rule in Italy. "The more oppressive a regime the more prone to build this kind of huge, useless and ridiculous structure," he said. "They are terribly offensive to the landscape and were certainly not needed. To use so much money for these useless buildings in a country where most people do not have schools for their children, electric power, roads and other facilities is, I think, a crime."

For Myanmar's elite, Bagan has become a valuable source of good karma. Many Buddhists believe that those who contribute to the construction of a temple are rewarded with "merit" that improves their fate when they are reincarnated. Generals and top government officials have been among the largest donors. At the Archeology Department office in Bagan, officials keep a list of hundreds of temple ruins ready for rebuilding, and a price list showing how much donors would have to give for each one. The amounts range from $700 for a small pagoda to $275,000 for a large temple. Most are between $2,000 and $30,000.

The department is eager to accept donations and welcomed a recent visitor who inquired about the program. Staff members provided a tour of two temple ruins. One was available for $800, the other for $2,400. All that remained of the original structures were walls 1 to 2 feet high. Plans were already drawn up for replacements. The original walls would be demolished, the old bricks discarded and new materials used. The larger ruin would be turned into a 30-foot-high temple, the smaller a simple pagoda. The new temples would cover the footprints of the old.

Government archeologists acknowledge that no one knows what the original structures looked like and say their designs are a calculated guess based on other buildings that survived. Even so, the design for a new temple can be changed at a donor's request...Officials have said it would be too costly to copy the old materials.

To make the new temples look more like ruins, the bricks are coated with brown paint made from ground-up ancient bricks. The idea is to have them look like old structures that have lost their stucco. It doesn't take long, however, for the paint to wash off. "The new brickwork, therefore, clashes with the aged appearance of the surviving temples, the new monuments appearing like plucked, pink chickens amidst the ancient shrines," American archeologist Donald Stadtner writes in his new book, "Ancient Bagan, Buddhist Plain of Merit." In addition to their reward in the next life, donors get a plaque outside their newly built temples. Existing signs bear the names of generals and ministers as well as donors from such places as Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Switzerland.

Pichard and other Western experts say the rebuilding program has caused irreparable harm to Bagan. Stadtner says the damage caused by the 1975 quake was "benign" compared with the reconstruction of the last 15 years. "Up to 1990, Bagan was one of the best preserved sites and cultural landscapes in Asia, with a perfect blend of the rural life where peasants, villages and well-cultivated fields surrounded the monuments without any harm," Pichard said. "Now all actions result in disfiguring the site and endangering the ancient buildings. Sorry for the cliche, but Bagan is becoming a Disneyland, and a very bad one."

Tourism Pressure and Intrusiveness at Bagan

According to ICOMOS: The property currently receives substantial visitation, and is a ‘must see’ for inbound international visitors to Myanmar. However, at present visitor pressure is not a major threat, due to the large scale of the property and capacity of major temples. Visitor numbers are likely to increase once the property is inscribed on the World Heritage List, so in the medium-term, it will be important to recognise that some of the popular buildings and 169 locations within the property have limits on their physical capacity. If effective visitor management is not put into practice, there is a future potential for damage to the values, authenticity and integrity of the property – including disruption to traditional religious activities. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

The property suffers from some adverse effects of inappropriate developments. In particular, there are some large-scale modern hotels within component 1 which are intrusive and inconsistent with the historical and visual setting of the Buddhist monuments. Other intrusive developments can be identified throughout the nominated property including hotels (some unlawfully constructed), public infrastructure and a few residential buildings. The State Party has indicated a willingness to address such intrusions through a staged process involving assessment of the heritage impact and site-specific circumstances of particular developments. A long-term program for removal and relocation of inappropriate structures is proposed.

While there has been significant intensification of development in urban areas and a growing focus on new hotel, retail, commercial and other facilities arising from increased tourism, these uses are predominantly located in discrete areas. In both Nyaung U and New Bagan, there are modern buildings and urban forms, but the scale and location of these precincts and the buildings within them do not currently impact significantly upon the nominated property components. These also reflect the aspirations and needs of the contemporary community.

There are some relatively new structures within the nominated property along the river which are visually intrusive. The Bagan Viewing Tower is prominent in close views, but its scale, form and colour mean that it is not visually intrusive within the wider landscape. The State Party is also aware of the need to implement mechanisms for controlling commercial signage.

Dealing with Tourism Pressure and Intrusiveness at Bagan

According to ICOMOS: Visitor management A range of visitor services have been established at Bagan, including the visitor centre and some tourism infrastructure. It is important that the carrying capacity of the more heavily visited pagodas and other parts of the 176 property be assessed so that proactive visitation management can occur. The ‘sunset view’ of Bagan is an attractive opportunity for some visitors, and the State Party acknowledges that there are some issues arising from inappropriate visitor behaviour (such as climbing on the temples). The Bagan Sunset Tower receives a relatively modest proportion of overall visitors. Sunsets are also observed from four different constructed ‘mounds’. ICOMOS considers that the location of at least one of these is inappropriate (and was not subject to the required consent processes). There are opportunities to improve the sunset experience of visitors, while simultaneously improving site management/operations – for example, by making information about sunset vantage points more readily available to visitors. [Source: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), 2019]

The current levels of interpretation offer considerable scope for improvement. Basic information is provided at most major temples, but interpretation for visitors relies on tour guides. There are approximately 400 tour guides, with more being trained. ICOMOS recommends the preparation and implementation of an Interpretation Strategy to extend and complement existing initiatives.

A Sustainable Tourism Strategy is being jointly implemented by the Hotel and Tourism Department and DANM. While the Strategy has been adopted, and some initiatives are being implemented concerning transportation and accessibility, it has yet to be fully incorporated into annual action plans, and budget allocations, and there are some variances with the overall management system. For example, the Strategy suggests that Nyaung U Airport ‘shall not be extended’, yet there is a current program to widen the runway and re-locate the terminal and aircraft parking areas. ICOMOS considers that this is an example of the challenges associated with cohesive, integrated management.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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